All Is Welles

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December 7, 2009 by jamesessj

Having finished Simon Callow’s first two biographical volumes on Orson Welles (Road to Xanadu and Hello Americans!, with a third to come), I find myself even more fascinated by the man — and even more repelled by my own fascination, for Welles was no saint.  In many respects he could be quite the opposite:  a boorish bully feasting on his own outsized ego.  But he was an undoubted genius — there are sequences in Citizen Kane that still thrill the heart like nothing else in cinema — and he was as much a victim of Hollywood’s monolithic mindset as anyone ever has been.  He also contributed a great deal to his own downfall by indulging his own monstrous appetites, fighting the wrong battles at the wrong times, and not showing up to fight the right battles at the right times.

That’s how it is with Welles — for every pro, there’s a con; for every con, a pro.  He was boyishly, boisterously enthusiastic about his projects; but this enthusiasm often waned after too short a season, leaving a career crowded with aborted endeavors.  He could be a deeply loyal friend; but he could also toss you aside without a second thought, as he did John Houseman, his longtime theatrical producing partner, and Herman Mankiewicz, writer of Kane.  He loved fiercely and passionately, but was incapable of monogamy.  (It’s not much of an exaggeration to say he slept with the entire female half of the southern hemisphere during his long South American sojourn in 1942.)  On occasion he could be a doting father, but his overall neglect of his children bordered on the criminal.  He was ardently political, but frequently failed — as so many politicians do — to live out in the micro-world of his own day-to-day life the macro-principles he preached.

He was, in short, the kind of guy you’d love to have a drink with, but wouldn’t let near your daughter.  I’m not sure Callow even likes Welles, although he clearly shares my fascination (these are not brief books), and from what I’ve gathered he may have relied overmuch on John Houseman’s accounting of things, but no one doubts that Welles had his demons, and lived a star-crossed life for which, to a large extent, he had only himself to blame.  My one big issue with Callow’s books is that they don’t — in a kind of eerie parallel to an oft-repeated criticism of Citizen Kane — get to their heart of their subject.  Welles is presented as all effect, without much cause…why was he what he was?  Was it his absent father?  His indulgent mother?  An outrageously precocious childhood?  Did he truly regret not visiting his father on his deathbed?  Why did he cultivate a remarkable string of father figures over the years?  Why did he get so bored with Rita Hayworth so quickly?

Of course it’s impossible to know the answers to any of these, but I wish Callow had provided a bit more direction by delving deeper into the man, as opposed to the phenomenon.  (In another parallel, Callow often takes Welles to task for not delving deeply enough into his acting roles — too much surface, too little substance.)  Welles was notorious for fictionalizing his own past, so in some respects a biographer has a near-impossible job sifting the true from the fabricated — but then that’s what biographers do, or at least what they’re supposed to.

I hesitate to draw any conclusions about with great talent coming great irresponsibility, but in Welles’ case it certainly was the case.  The career he might have had, had he been wiser, less driven by his appetites, less spoiled by himself and others, is one of Hollywood’s Great Unknowns.  But had he been wiser, less driven by his appetites, less spoiled by himself and others, then he wouldn’t have been Orson Welles — and that’s true of each of us, that the better angels of our nature may exist because of the worser demons, and vice-versa.  We are all dichotomies, paradoxes, unfathomable mysteries…Welles had the misfortune to have his writ large, but quite possibly that’s why I find him so fascinating:  turns out he’s not that special after all.


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December 2009
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